Wednesday, February 02, 2011

With school jobs on the line, little agreement on where to make cuts

Some say nonteaching positions should go first, but officials say they are crucial part of system.

Monday, Jan. 31, 2011
If the nonteacher employees of Texas public schools were a company, its work force would be larger than those of all but six of the Fortune 500. It would be larger than the population of Corpus Christi and that of the world's 10 smallest nations combined.

The image of bloated bureaucracy is a favorite target of small-government advocates, a boogeyman all the more popular in these austere times for public finances.

Fiscal conservatives say nonteaching jobs are the first place school districts should look when considering layoffs, but school officials say such positions are crucial to a functional public school system. The need for janitors and bus drivers is obvious, they say, but grant writers and data analysts are also essential; they bring in federal money and compile valuable information on school performance.

Almost half of the state's more than 661,000 public education employees are not teachers, and most of the nonteachers are so-called auxiliary personnel — janitors, cafeteria workers and bus drivers who on average make less than $23,000 a year, according to Texas Education Agency data from 2009-10. The same data indicate that the ratio of teaching to nonteaching positions has remained about the same for the past 15 years.

Peggy Venable , director of the Texas chapter of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, says it's time for that to change.

"We have to do a better job of educating our children with less," she said. "If there's one nonteaching staffer for every teacher in our school districts, you bet we can cut significant spending without cutting teachers, without cutting classroom instruction."

Jenny Caputo , spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Administrators, said classroom instruction is just one piece of the puzzle.

"Clearly that's the most important thing, but somebody has to get (students) to that classroom; someone has to register them in the front office; someone has to feed them lunch every day," Caputo said.

With the state facing a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall, school districts grappling with dwindling property tax receipts and federal stimulus money running out, many districts are slashing their budgets, and teaching positions are on the line.

Last week, the Austin school district proposed cutting 485 jobs to make ends meet, the vast majority of them (421 ) teaching positions. The district eliminated 113 administrative and other nonteaching positions last year. This year, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said, trustees will have to trim another 50 to 100 administrative positions to help make up for the lost state aid.

Venable said that districts should look first toward nonteaching positions and that high-paying professional support and administrative jobs would be a good place to start. Such cuts would have less impact on student learning and give schools more bang for their budget-cutting buck, the thinking goes.

On average, professional support staffers earn $8,000 more than teachers, and administrative staffers make almost $27,000 more, according to TEA data.

Bigger in Texas

A recent report by the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute says the state's administrative apparatus "diverts resources from classroom instruction and also grows the cost of education while not contributing to improved educational outcomes."

The Legislative Budget Board has found that among the 15 most populous states, Texas has the highest number of public school employees per 10,000 residents, with 273. New Jersey is next, with 266, and California employs only 193 people per 10,000.

Caputo said those numbers are at least partially attributable to the state's geographic breadth and diversity: Rural areas that have "in some cases 100 or fewer kids in the entire district" can't take advantage of the same administrative economies of scale as, for example, the Houston school district, which enrolls more than 202,000 students.

There is also the increasing scope of educational mandates to consider, from the state's demographic, scholastic and financial reporting requirements to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said Leander district Superintendent Bret Champion . With each new law, schools need people to implement requirements and ensure compliance. Still, he said, "I don't have a problem in the world with looking at every process. Everything that can be looked at should be looked at."

Doing more with less

The TEA requires that each district submit information on the number, salaries and function of all district positions. While most categorization leaves little room for uncertainty, the criteria for some 19,000 "other campus professional personnel" and "other noninstructional district professional personnel" are broadly defined. The average salary of workers in these categories is almost $60,000 .

"I believe that there's a lot of monkey business being played with the school district reporting and expenditures, and the public has a right to know what those positions are," Venable said.

Agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said a more specific breakdown of these 19,000 employees is not available.

"School districts can create job positions to meet their needs, so we collect it the best we can," she said.

Lawmakers looking to make cuts to education received little guidance from the Legislative Budget Board's biennial "effectiveness and efficiency" recommendations. Its analysis of public schools cites no areas where administrative overhead might be reduced for the upcoming two-year budget.

One section focuses on school counselors, nurses and librarians but finds that, if anything, most Texas schools are understaffed in these areas — personnel the report says "play a critical role in campus effectiveness and student achievement."

Districts often use staffing formulas to determine how many nonteaching employees to allocate per campus. In Eanes, for example, janitors are employed based on a school's square footage. Those formulas will probably require adjustment, and, as Eanes Superintendent Nola Wellman makes clear, virtually nothing is off the table.

"We might have teachers and kids emptying trash," she said.

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